Saturday, April 19, 2014

Whiteness, Microaggressions, and the Threat to White Innocence

A recent article in the New York Times by Tanzina Vega entitled "Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions’" highlights a new movement intended to bring attention to the experiences of people of color interacting with supposedly non-racist white people. Initially, I was pleased to see the dominant media reporting on the issue of racial microaggressions, but I was quickly disappointed by Vega's attempt to offer a balanced take on this "trend." She purports to present both sides, but her superficial notion of balance, which is firmly rooted in whiteness, severely limits the article's potential to add anything useful to readers' understanding of the issue.  

The problem with this article is its unflinching commitment to the white racial frame, and specifically to its post-civil rights liberal offshoot, the diversity frame. According to the diversity frame, the relevant context for understanding microaggressions, as with all  race-related issues is difference, and specifically, difference from a largely unnamed norm of whiteness. Beginning with her implication that microaggressions are occurring as a result of "an increasingly diverse culture," to her closing with Henry Louis Gate's call for equal opportunity oppression, the overall moral picture she paints is of a world where racial differences are more or less neutral, and bear no larger historical or political significance. From the vantage point of Vega's diversity frame, it seems, microaggressions are being discussed now primarily because people from "diverse" groups are interacting with each other more frequently. There is no acknowledgement that microaggressions are actually about white people (consciously or not) perpetuating white cultural dominance.

After characterizing "microaggressions" as "the social justice word du jour" and describing the proliferation of blogs, facebook pages, academic papers, and student theater productions documenting the phenomenon,  she traces the term's popularity to Columbia psychology professor Derald W. Sue, author of an influential book on the topic. This would have been a great opportunity to get a clear articulation of the theory of microaggressions directly from the source. Unfortunately, all we get from Dr. Sue is a conjecture that the increased use of the term is due to the changing demographics of the country. The article is peppered with quotes from few individual students of color describing their experiences of being targets of microaggressions, but the author lets these stand on their own, making little or no effort to situate these experiences in the context of the theory.
Meanwhile, Vega is fairly generous in giving voice to those who are more of less skeptical of the concept. She quotes Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter, who suggests the need to distinguish truly abusive statements - like assuming that every black student on campus is an affirmative action case - from more innocent speech such as an assertion of colorblindness. Vega also cites more serious skeptics, such as Harry Stein (an author noted for his conservative views on race), who criticizes the term microaggression for exaggerating the significance of these encounters and encouraging a victim mentality. The article ends with the venerable Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizing that, in the interests of genuine multiculturalism, "the public airing of racial microaggressions should not be limited to minorities."   

An all too familiar feature of the white racial frame is the urge to portray reports of white racial insensitivity as exaggerated and as the cause, rather than the result, of racial tension. Vega makes no secret of her suspicion that much of the discussion of microaggressions may be a matter of "divisive hypersensitivity." This attitude is exemplified by her treatment of Dr. McWhorter's defense of white folks' professions of colorblindness. When McWhorter says that, "whites do not have the same freedom to talk about race that nonwhites do," Vega lets this statement stand unchallenged. This uncritical acceptance makes sense from within a diversity frame which recognizes difference but not power and privilege.

Illustration by Gabriel Ivan Orendain-Necochea/CSUN Daily Sundial

A writer with a critical race frame (which is what is called for here) would have pointed out that the training of whites to avoid talking about race is one of the defining features of post civil rights white supremacy. It is a primary means by which the white power structure maintains itself. Whether the scene is a family holiday, where talking about controversial topics is impolite, or a political campaign, where mentioning racism is "playing the race card," or a community college classroom, where white students are able to shutdown a conversation on race because it's making them uncomfortable, white social norms and white institutional power are very effective at silencing race talk. Moreover, the opportunity to benefit from whiteness while refusing to acknowledge racial differences is the sine qua non of white privilege. Precisely for this reason, from the standpoint of the critical race frame, white people who oppose racism actually have a moral responsibility to talk about whiteness and racism whenever possible.

Another consequence of Vega's white racial frame is her failure to offer any explanation of the theory behind the "trend." Indeed, she fundamentally misrepresents it. In their landmark paper on the topic, Dr. Sue et al. define racial microaggressions as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color" (italics mine). The definition, which is conspicuously missing from the article, is quite explicit that the psychological impact of racial microaggressions is assumed to be independent of the intentions of the speaker. Moreover, all the literature supporting the theory emphasizes that the negative effects of microaggressions do not arise from isolated interactions, but are cumulative in nature.

No idea is immune from criticism, of course, but there is a significant difference between critique and obfuscation. Rather than challenge the idea of microaggressions on its merits, Vega leaves her readers with the mistaken impression that the discourse is about ascertaining the true intentions of a speaker in order to figure out whether a particular interaction should count as a microaggression. This is clear from the outset, when she wonders if the discussion is useful or whether it represents a "new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion." Whether her confusion is genuine or strategic, it comports well with her white racial frame. By concentrating on the question of intentionality, she managed to change the subject in a fairly predictable way. Rather than helping her readers understand the life experience of people of color who are routinely confronted with minor insults, indignities, and invalidations, she opted to wring her hands over the possibility that some "innocent" white people might feel unjustly accused of racism.

This article is a heartbreaking missed opportunity. It could have given Times' readers the gift of a genuine appreciation for the suffering caused by racial microaggressions and made a contribution to the healing of our society's collective racial trauma. Instead, by remaining solidly within a white racial frame, the article ends up simply re-perpetrating that trauma, while giving us white folks more fodder for our claims of innocence.

1 comment:

  1. This article made a few things clear to me, but what stood out was how when writing about concepts like microaggression there is a tendency for white writers to focus on their own emotional response ('being innocently accused of racism') rather than the experience of the other person, a result of thinking in the white racial frame. I didn't have this language before to express this so clearly - thank you for writing this.